Obliquely affecting, nuts-and-bolts portrait of a country veterinarian and his evolving practice.
Whynott (A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time, 1999, etc.) writes with a chiming sweetness that serves as a fine counterpoint to the vigors and travails of his subject, Charles Shaw. Located in rural New Hampshire, Shaw has a mixed-animal practice, rare in this age of specialization. As drawn here, he’s the kind of man who will not pull the plug on a creature until all is said and done. Cats, dogs, and dairy cows are his bread and butter, but he also attends sheep, llamas, birds, pigs, donkeys, ferrets, and guinea pigs, which all fall under his notion of veterinary care. Shaw is no saint—he gets cranky when a call comes in at a 3 a.m. for the lamest of reasons—but he makes himself available at all hours (and brutal hours they are), whether it’s for an obstetric need, a bovine manicure, or an insemination. Whynott applies the same skill in portraiture to Shaw’s associate Roger Osinchuk, a horse doctor, and to a woman hired to share the everyday practice. Erika Bruner makes a fine foil to Shaw: she’s a crazy-haired punk out of Tufts who has the wits to tap into her partner’s sensibility, the exquisite touch that gives him entree into the condition of his charge. Conflict between Bruner and Shaw eventually results in her leaving the practice—“I wanted something that Chuck calls hand-holding and that I call mentoring, and Chuck was unable to give it,” she says—but there is little doubt that both benefited from their time together. For all the changes affecting rural veterinary practice, so sharply drawn here by Whynott, these people still make house calls and deign to answer the phone late at night. Lucky New Hampshire animal owners.
Should prompt warm appreciation for the dedicated practitioners of a job that ruins any social life and generates levels of stress that are not highlighted in veterinary school catalogues.